July 31, 2021

Torch Lake Takeover

Algae blooms are increasing in one of the North’s most beautiful lakes
By Craig Manning | June 12, 2021

You don’t need to live on the shores of Torch Lake to know how breathtakingly gorgeous it is. A massive inland lake (the biggest in Michigan, by water volume), Torch Lake is known for its party-raising sandbars, its cavernous depths (nearly 300 feet to the bottom at its deepest point), and its pure, clear waters. Local legend has it that National Geographic once named Torch the “third most beautiful lake in the world” (though Northern Express couldn’t verify this claim). Certainly, MLive once named Torch Lake “Michigan’s own slice of the Caribbean” — a comparison others have made over the years, thanks to the lake’s picturesque shades of deep blue and seafoam green.

One thing that doesn’t mesh with Torch Lake’s reputation for resplendent beauty? Big blooms of brown algae, which have become increasingly common in the lake’s near-shore areas over the past decade. 

According to Tom Joseph, a 26-year resident of the Torch Lake community, the algae situation hasn’t crossed over into crisis mode just yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not concerning. While some property owners along the lake have noticed thick mats of algae sticking to the lake bottoms near their docks and beaches, Joseph says that — from his perspective, at least — the algae is not yet disrupting tourism, affecting property values, hurting lake-dependent businesses, or otherwise hindering overall enjoyment of the lake. In fact, Joseph says that tourists or other more casual users of the lake might not even be aware yet that something is amiss.

“Like so many things in life, it depends on your perspective,” Joseph says of the algae issue. “We’ve lived here for 26 years, so to us, it's a dramatic change [to see algae in this lake]. It used to be that the water was so crystal clear that, even at the end of the season when we’d take our dock out, there'd be very little evidence of anything on the legs of the dock, or the shore station that the boat sits on. Each year, you see a little bit more. So we are very sensitive to it, and it is a very big deal. But when we have guests come up here, especially from downstate or out of state, they marvel at the purity of the water. They say, ‘What are you talking about?! I've never seen anything so crystal clear.’”

Despite the relative subtlety of algae growth in Torch Lake, Joseph says there are enough residents like him — watching the waters day in and day out, constantly monitoring for changes — to sound the alarm. For at least the past five years, the algae blooms in Torch Lake have been under the microscope. Organizations like the Torch Lake Protection Association (TLPA, for which Joseph serves as a board member) and the Three Lakes Association (which focuses on water quality preservation efforts for Torch Lake, Lake Bellaire, and Clam Lake) have been funding water quality studies and other research aimed at determining what is causing the algae blooms — and how those scientific processes might be reversed.

In 2019, TLPA launched its latest effort at getting to the bottom of the algae mystery: a far-reaching study aimed at filling in the gaps that previous research had left unexplored. The organization contracted with Environment Consulting & Technology, Inc., a Traverse City-based company, to collect water samples, with subcontracts going Ann Arbor’s PhycoTech, Inc. for laboratory analysis of the algae samples; and Traverse City’s Great Lakes Environmental Center, for water chemistry analysis. Contractors collected water samples from May through October last year, with lab work following. The report documenting the study’s findings came back this spring.

In particular, Joseph says the TLPA study was intended to zero in on algae growth in “the near-shore shallows” and in “the inlet tributaries that flow into the lake.” The key takeaways from the report — which will be published in its full 164-page glory on the TLPA site later this summer — are threefold:

First, and perhaps most crucially, Joseph says “there is no ‘smoking gun’ single factor” causing algae blooms in Torch Lake, which makes solving the issue that much more difficult.

Second, while Torch residents have mostly been referring to the blooms as “golden-brown algae” (GBA, a specific class or type of freshwater algae) thanks to its general golden-brown hue, the actual biological makeup of the lake’s blooms is more complicated. Joseph says the algae is “brownish in color because it is a mixture of fungus, diatoms, blue-green algae/cyanobacteria, and sediments,” all of which are “in the brownish to yellowish range.”

Third, the study determined that concentrations of phosphorous, a well-known contributor to algae growth, were ping-ponging “widely, over time” in several of the tributaries that flow into Torch Lake — including Wilkinson Creek, A-Ga-Ming Creek, and Eastport Creek.

What do these findings mean, and where do they put Torch Lake heading into what promises to be another busy season of tourism, boating, and water-bound recreation? 

The good news is that there is no evidence to suggest that the algae is toxic in any way. The contents of what Joseph is now calling Torch’s “diatom-dominated bottom crust” are naturally occurring and have been observed in many other lakes, both locally and in other northern parts of the United States. Lakes, Joseph notes, follow a natural “aging process” just like anything else, and growing accumulations of algae on Torch Lake could be part of that process.

There is evidence, however, that human activity can accelerate a lake’s natural aging process — and that smart lake preservation could be possible by adopting a few simple changes to day-to-day behavior and activity. 

“There are many case studies that have been conducted of freshwater lake systems that have shown that there's a natural process of lakes,” Joseph said. “Man and the climate have a dramatic impact on what that lifecycle looks like. So, if development around the lake is not done in a responsible manner, the lake is going to age very quickly, and the algae is going to continue to build up. I once found a study of Lake Bellaire that was done in the ’50s or ’60s, right when they first started developing around that lake. Lake Bellaire, at one time, was very much like Torch Lake: very clear, sandy bottom, you could see to depths 25 to 30 feet. But they did not follow the warning signs. They developed it too quickly, did too much on the lake. And it changed. It’s still a beautiful lake, but it's in the process of accelerated aging, and that's what we want to avoid.”

The TLPA sees several strategies that could help prevent accelerated aging from becoming the narrative of Torch Lake. The key, Joseph says, is being mindful of “nutrient loading,” or the process by which large quantities of foreign nutrients find their way into a lake system in a concentrated period of time. The TLPA has identified three key contributors to the problem of nutrient loading in and around Torch Lake: the use of lawn fertilizers, old or poorly maintained septic systems, and stormwater runoff.

To start, the TLPA is working on a variety of efforts to educate local residents on how they can help preserve the health of the lake. Last year, the organization started distributing yard signs that read “Keep Torch Blue; Don’t Fertilize.” TLPA is working with the Three Lakes Association on a similar effort this year. The organization is also encouraging local property owners to invest in regular inspections and cleanings for their septic systems and is even in talks with local health departments to explore the possibility of establishing some sort of mandatory septic system inspection ordinance. Finally, TLPA is hoping to spread the word that future development along the lakeshore needs to “provide proper buffer zones … to minimize rainfall runoff from carrying nutrients into the lake.”

At the moment, Joseph says there is solid buy-in among the Torch Lake community on efforts to curb the lake’s premature aging. Last year, TLPA made 250 “Don’t Fertilize” yard signs and gave them all out within 30 days. Demand has stayed high enough to necessitate the printing of another batch. More generally, chatter around preservation efforts has been positive, too.

“I always tell people that Torch Lake is something that gets in your soul,” Joseph says. “You can't walk away from it. It’s such a wonderful area that nature has blessed us with, and we owe it back to the lake to take care of it. I would say that the majority of the people — particularly the full-time lakeshore owners and residents — feel the same, and are very supportive.”

Longer term, preserving the lake could be an expensive proposition — and more of a test of loyalty to the lake for local residents. For instance, Joseph notes that some communities in Michigan previously had mandatory point-of-sale inspections for septic systems, but that those policies have mostly gone away because septic repairs or replacements are expensive and were making it difficult for property owners to sell their homes.

“Michigan is blessed with the best freshwater sources of lakes and streams of any place in the world,” Joseph said. “And yet, we are the worst state for having a consistent health code for septic systems. Lansing needs to protect our waters — whether it's rivers, streams, lakes, or wells — by having some consistent legislation requiring the health departments to regulate not only the installation of septic tanks, but the maintenance of them. And long term, if Torch Lake is going to have a long lifecycle, we're going to have to depart from private septic systems entirely and get to sewer systems. People are overwhelmed with the cost and the construction [of such a project], but that's just a fact of life, and that's what's best for the lakes.”

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